Catherine Ashton has failed to persuade the UK and other Beijing-critical member states to lift the EU arms embargo on China. But China is continuing to build influence in the Union with bond purchases from vulnerable countries.
"There remains a broad consensus within the EU that the time is not right to lift the arms embargo. We need to see clear progress on the issues that necessitated the embargo in the first place, namely on civil liberties and political rights," a British diplomat told EUobserver on Tuesday (4 January) in response to speculation on a potential shift in EU policy, which would require a consensus of all 27 EU members.
A diplomat from a former Communist EU country added: "There is simply no talk of it in the run-up to the EU foreign ministers' meeting [on 31 January]. After the Nobel Peace Prize and China's reaction to that, it is politically unimaginable to make any move for the time being."
Leaving aside the moral dimension, any change on the embargo could also harm EU-US relations.
Asked by EUobserver on Tuesday if the US is reconsidering its position on China arms sales, the State Department pointed to comments made by a senior US diplomat, John Hillen, in 2005 as still being relevant. Mr Hillen at the time said that lifting the embargo would "raise a major obstacle to future US defence co-operation with Europe."
The EU imposed the ban in 1989 in response to China's killings of thousands of dissidents during protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
France and Spain have recently argued that the arms ban is out of date due to China's economic metamorphosis and de facto changes in EU-China trade relations. The EU's foreign relations chief, British politician Catherine Ashton, aligned herself with anti-embargo countries in a strategy paper on China delivered to EU leaders in December. The paper said the embargo is "a major impediment" for better relations and that the Union should elaborate "a way forward."